ClassicFlix (Teen Scene) – Review #22: Blackboard Jungle (1955)

From March 2015 to April 2017, I was writing the monthly Teen Scene column for the website ClassicFlix. My objective was to promote classic films among teenagers and young adults. Due to the establishing of a new version of the website, it’s now more difficult to access to the old version and read the reviews. But, I’m allowed to publish my reviews on my blog 30 days after they had been published on ClassicFlix! So, I decided to do so as you could have an easy access to them. If you are not a teenager, it doesn’t matter! I’m sure you can enjoy them just the same! My twenty-second review was for the 1955s classic Blackboard Jungle directed by Richard Brooks. Enjoy!

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The ’50s were marked by the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, a musical genre that scandalized elders and delighted youngsters. In the world of cinema, Blackboard Jungle, a Richard Brooks picture released in 1955, played an important role in this musical history, becoming the first film to feature rock ‘n’ roll music with the hit “Rock around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. The ’50s are also often considered the golden age of teen movies and though many mention Rebel without A Cause or The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle is one you shouldn’t neglect.

Blackboard Jungle takes place at North Manual Trades High School in a poor New York neighborhood. Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) is the new English teacher. He has been told how most of the students are hard to handle and that most of them are hopeless cases. But, in Richard’s opinion, something can be done. There must be a way to make them want to learn while being entertained. The task won’t be an easy one. Richard has to face tough behaviors and rebellion, especially from Artie West (Vic Morrow). He finds an ally in Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), but has a hard time figuring if he is a recommendable student or not.

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These are the main lines of Blackboard Jungle, but more is going on, including problems in Richard and his wife Anne’s (Anne Francis) personal life, caused by the problematic school students.

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Blackboard Jungle is based on a novel by Evan Hunter which was based on Hunter’s own experiences as a schoolteacher in a tough school of the South Bronx.

For those unfamiliar with the work of underrated actor Glenn Ford, Blackboard Jungle is a good one to start with. Ford plays a sensible man who provides a range of emotions well chosen according to how the story evolves. When he arrives at the school, it’s easy to notice he’s one coming there to do good. He never overacts and shares a contagious and beautiful complicity with the charming Anne Francis who plays his wife, Anne.

The film is also an occasion to discover Sidney Poitier’s earliest film role. He hadn’t won his Oscar yet, but his thoughtful performance in Blackboard Jungle is proof he was on the right track. It is important to mention Poitier was one of the first African-American actors given important and significant roles. Among the other young actors in this film Vic Morrow, who plays Arnie West, does a credible and convincing job as the toughest student of Dadier’s group. Steve McQueen was considered for the role, but Morrow nailed the audition.

Let’s not forget Louis Calhern, who plays Jim Murdock, the history teacher. Calhern steals the show by simply being there. What an incredible actor he was! Richard Dadier is not the only new teacher at North Manual Trades High School. Joshua Edwards is the new mathematics teacher brilliantly played by Richard Kiley. Without revealing too much, Josh breaks our hearts. And finally, Lois Hammond is played by the beautiful Margaret Hayes. Even if her character has a crush on a married man (Dadier), Hayes manages to retain all the class she needs.

Director Richard Brooks was a prolific movie director and an excellent movie writer. Brooks wrote the screenplays of all his films, with a few exceptions. For Blackboard Jungle, he received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay but lost it to Paddy Chayefsky for Marty. Brooks gives the best tone to the film through his adaptation and knew how to make the characters and story unfold in the right way.

Despite being a brilliant film, on its release Blackboard Jungle brought a lot of complications. To include a rock ‘n’ roll song in its opening and ending credits attracted the teens, but some screenings were victims of vandalism. We notice that “Rock around the Clock” is never fully heard and that’s mostly due to the fact that, in the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll was considered a bad influence (especially on youngsters).

Luckily, Blackboard Jungle is best remembered for the good values it presents. It’s a film that proves every human can change for the better and every human can help if he or she wants to. The film should also be praised for its anti-racism message embodied by Richard (Glenn Ford), Gregory (Sidney Poitier) and the school principal, Mr. Warneke (John Hoyt), perceived in some crucial dialogue. For example:

Richard Dadier: Now, you pick up that magazine, Belazi. Pick it up! I wanna get one thing very clear in this classroom. There’s not gonna be any name calling here. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Now you understand that? All of ya!

Pete V. Morales: I was just kidding.

Richard Dadier: Yeah, I know you’re just kidding. That’s how things start. Like a street fight. Somebody pushes somebody in fun. Somebody pushes back, and soon you got a street fight with no kidding. That’s the same way with name-calling. All right, West, look. You’re of Irish decent. So is Murphy over there. You call him a Mick. He calls you a Mick. Suppose Miller called you a Mick. Is that all right?

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For those who want to see a classic that had important cultural impact, Blackboard Jungle is a good option. It remains a timeless masterpiece as such situations still happen in today’s schools. There is much more to say, but to reveal too much could spoil the future viewers’ experience.
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